By Jason Heaton
on 9.11.12
Photo by Christopher Winters

Earlier this year, we told you about the innovative new BioLite CampStove, which promised to not only cook your wieners but also charge your smartphone using only firewood. This summer, I had a chance to take one camping to see how it worked in the wild. I took it on a road trip to northern Michigan with a friend. We were planning to camp along the way but it was a fairly civilized trip, with iPads, phones and cameras in tow. It seemed a perfect test bed for the BioLite.

The idea of the BioLite is appealing on many fronts. You don’t need to take along messy, smelly and decidedly “un-green” stove fuel since it burns only wood. It provides guilt-free USB charging of small electronics like your phone, tablet or even a rechargeable headlamp like the Light & Motion I brought along. And tools that have multiple uses are always welcome when camping and this one can boil your water while it’s charging devices. So how did it work?

Ergonomically, the BioLite is well-designed, with its components nesting into each other, and setup was a cinch: the legs fold out and the charging module hooks into place on the side of the mesh burning cylinder. Instructions were easy to follow: Build a small pile of twigs in the bottom of the cylinder (BioLite even provided a starter pack of wood), press the button to start the small fan in the charging unit and drop in a match. This last step is easier said than done. The cylinder is deep and narrow so lighting the wood required a few tries and a quick hand to avoid getting burned. But once the wood caught, the whirring turbine fanned the flames quickly.

Boiling water is as easy as it sounds. The top of the fire cylinder is not huge but was stable enough to set a pot of water on. The design of the cylinder funnels heat upwards, which is effective for cooking, but it also is fairly efficient, without a lot of heat loss that plagues many other kinds of camp stoves. The stove also heats up fairly quickly, depending on the kind of wood fuel you add. It was not long before we had a roaring fire in the cylinder, and the green light on the charging unit told me it was ready to serve double duty and charge a phone. Here’s where some of my complaints started.

Despite the gripes, there is something satisfying and magical to hearing that familiar iPhone “chirp” when charging begins merely from a fire in the woods.

Due to the relatively small size of the stove, you can only burn small twigs and wood scraps. This means that, while the stove heats up quickly, it also necessitates nearly constant stoking. Turn your back on the stove for a couple of minutes to set up your tent or fish out another beer, and your fire has dwindled and the charging system shuts down until it gets roaring again. Constant stoking also meant removing my cook pot repeatedly to add fuel. My friend and I quickly learned that running the stove to charge a device requires constant attention. It is not the kind of thing you can set and forget while you set up camp and come back to a charged iPhone for your evening’s Pink Floyd. We started with a completely discharged iPhone and it took about an hour of trial and error and scrambling around the forest floor looking for twigs to get the phone to about 8%.

Given the design of the BioLite, packing up required thoroughly cleaning out the ash and charred remains of the fire before nesting components back together. Even so, the stylish orange charging unit still ended up streaked and greasy with black residue the next time I took it apart.

Despite these gripes, there is something satisfying and magical to hearing that familiar iPhone “chirp” when charging begins merely from a fire in the woods. The key with the BioLite is setting reasonable expectations. A phone is a potential safety device and having a means to charge it even to 8% can mean the difference between an emergency text message and sending smoke signal semaphores from a hilltop. The BioLite will not power your evening’s entertainment, but that is probably a good thing anyway.

Buy Now: $129

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